A few days before Dilin Nair was born, his Delhi-based parents left for their hometown of Thiruvananthapuram. They wanted for him the identity of a Kerala-born Malayali, even if the national capital was to be their home. Twenty-eight years down the line, Delhi has bested Kerala as dominant cultural influence, transforming Dilin Nair into Raftaar, a speed devil on the Indian rap scene. Clad in flashy clothes, indoor glasses and sporting tattoos on both arms, Raftaar is every bit the desi hip-hop artiste when we meet him at his Andheri office in Mumbai. “Growing up in the north, it was natural for me to absorb the Punjabiness around me. I like their way of living, their large-heartedness. I know no other way,” he says.
From being the only child of parents of modest means — his father was a cleaner with the Indian Railway and mother a typist; their first home was a one-room apartment in a society in Munirka, Delhi, where they had to share a kitchen and toilet with six other families — to a pop-star with a formidable following, Raftaar has come a long way. He owes it all to rap, which he discovered in Delhi, a city with a large audience for the desi hip-hop of artistes from Punjab and Haryana.
Young Dilin grew up in Munirka and Rohini, picked on by bullies in school after school — he changed six in all. He would be bullied by boys from rich families for his shabby pair of shoes and even discriminated against by teachers. A child from a lower middle-class family in a city all about connections, he carried with him a sense of deprivation. He was a restless, hyper-energetic Class IX student waiting to explode when a friend gave him a CD with the songs of Eminem and Linkin Park. “I knew I had a sharper mind than most others and I had a sense of rhyme. One didn’t even need to sing melodies. It felt like the perfect way to make my way out of the gutter,” he says.
Raftaar’s talent became a badge of cool for him in high school and college, where he went on to participate and win in fests. It was 2006. The only performance spaces for independent music were clubs and college fests. Rock and metal music’s domination of the indie scene would leave little space for hip-hop, a genre finding its feet with names such as Bohemia and Yo Yo Honey Singh.
Orkut, a fast-growing social networking site at the time, emerged as an unlikely space for young and inexperienced aspiring rappers all over the country, who would post their lyrics on the community pages. In its inner circles, the text-only rap battles were a rite of passage for future stars such as Lil Golu, Deep Money, Ikka, Baadshah and Raftaar. “Our group was called Black Wall Street Desis and we used to speak like black rappers at the time. We were all wannabes at one point. I would mistake the marijuana icon emblazoned on a T-shirt for a maple leaf. But everyone starts off as a wannabe, getting influenced by others. Then gradually, we find our own voices,” says the 28-year-old music producer and rapper who writes his own lyrics.
While their struggle to get noticed was on, Raftaar’s pocket money came from an additional talent, his natural dancing skills that he is seen employing in his music videos. He started taking classes at a dance institute in Delhi, charging Rs 150 per kid. In 2011, he was competing in Dance India Dance, teaming up with a colleague from the institute under the name “Max and Manik”. Along with displaying his hip-hop steps, he got a chance to rap on national TV as well. Raftaar ended at eighth position of the competition he didn’t go unnoticed.
Soon after, the Black Wall Street Desis got a call from Honey Singh. “People didn’t know his face at the time, but knew his name for a couple of hits. We figured that this guy has cracked the way of making rap accessible to the Indian audience, by mixing Indian percussion and melody,” he says.
That mutual admiration led to the formation of Mafia Mundeer — a group that included Singh, Raftaar and Baadshah among others. Collaboration turned into animosity, when the latter two accused Singh of depriving them of credits and left the group. “I wrote most of Dope Shope and was promised that I’d be given my due. When the final product appeared, Honey appeared all over the video, even singing lines that I’d sung,” Raftaar recalls even as he says he doesn’t want to dwell on Singh’s “betrayal”.
The split in 2012 also formed the basis of a rivalry that runs parallel to their careers. Both Baadshah and Raftaar have made it big enough to rival Singh’s popularity, although the former two claim to be “brothers”.
“Rapping is competitive. Even someone who is not particularly fond of my music, may claim to be my fan only because he hates Honey Singh. You won’t see fans with Sonu Nigam or Arijit Singh tattoos, but I’ll show you many who have my name tattooed. Because unlike them, we rappers sell a certain aspirational lifestyle,” he says.
Although Raftaar has been at the forefront of the hip-hop scene, he shot to mainstream popularity only last year with the smash hit Swag mera desi, also featuring Manj Music. He can’t do without collaborations because Indian listeners don’t have the appetite for hardcore rap. It has to be a part of a song, where there is ample scope for groove and melody. “All my underground stuff, which has only rap, gets the least number of hits,” he says. “Here, you are a good rapper only when people can rap along with you. People want it easy, they want it served on a plate.”
The sexism and objectification of women in hip-hop culture has long been subject to criticism. When the Delhi gangrape of 2012 started a nationwide conversation on women’s equality in India, the work of popular stars such as Singh came under attack. But Raftaar defends his tribe, arguing that they deliver merely what the audience wants. “At the end of the day, you need to sell. All my hits in Punjab and Haryana are about heartbreak. The songs sound like you are blaming the opposite sex,” he says, rapping impromptu as he makes his point: “Ganda ganda gaana hi banana padhta hai/ Teda medha gaana bhi gaana padhta hai/ Galti humari nahi hai, aap sunte hi yeh ho/ Neeche paapi pet hai, kamana padhta hai.”
As his popularity grows — he has featured in Bollywood chartbusters such as Tamanchey pe disco from Bullett Raja, Whistle baja from Heropanti and Singh and Kaur from Singh is Bling and has work with Vishal-Shekhar and Pritam coming up — Raftaar is becoming aware of his responsibilities as an artiste. The songs that are closer to his heart are not the ones that only talk about cars, girls, booze and partying. An example is Alla Ve, a song he performed for Season 4 of Coke Studio@MTV, which talks about humanity and world peace. His other single, Mother Nature, is a commentary on global warming. The lyrics go “Khush aam insaan hai, kisan pareshan/ Samaaj ko anaaj kaise de vo hairan/Kare baat barsat bina kisi kaam ki/Tufaan aane waala hai kisi ko nahi dhyan.” “I’m trying to balance both commerce and art,” he says.
Raftaar’s upward mobility in the music scene is highlighted by his latest collaboration with AR Rahman. He is starstruck by his experience of recording a song in Rahman’s studio in Chennai. “He just gave me a beat and asked me to rap on it about my reflections on the youth culture. It was for a film by Rhea Kapoor, who suggested my name to him. Even if the song is scrapped, I’m just blessed that I got to be in his studio.”